Friday, September 14, 2007

“Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem, and Minivans” by Sam Stall (2007)

One of the surprise movie hits of early 2007 is a teen variation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window called Disturbia. The title is a hybrid of “disturb” and “suburbia,” and the picture’s tagline is: “Every killer lives next door to someone.”

According to Sam Stall’s Suburban Legends, it’s not just killers that put the “br-r-r-r” in “suburban.” To hear him tell it, America’s small towns and bedroom communities are jam-packed with ghosts, disguised aliens, poltergeists, cryptozoological monsters, gardens/basements/walls hiding rotting corpses, and enough sickening depravity to make Eli Roth reach for a barf bag. Imagine Wally and the Beaver chopping Ward into manageable chucks and feeding them into a wood chipper, and then keeping June locked in the basement, only letting her out to be used as the sacrifice in a Black Mass. And then blaming their actions on the suspicion that their house was built on the site of an Indian burial ground.

And we escaped from the inner city for this?

Stall, who is a solid, amusing if not overwhelming professional writer, divides this collection of petit guignol anecdotes into seven sections, each one emphasizing a particular horror to suburban homeownership—“Inhumanly Bad Houseguests” (spooks), “The Ghoul Next Door” (murder), “Hellish Commutes” (haunted highways), “Backyard Beasts” (non-human spooks), “Really Desperate Housewives” (mad mamas), “Lawn of the Dead” (buried bodies), and “Sundry Cul-de-Sacrileges (everything else).

All of these stories are “true” and many of them are overly familiar from Travel Channel spookshows and A&E’s true crime lineup. In fact, some of Stall’s short chapters are so brief I suspect all the research he did was watch “Weird America” and “City Confidential.” That said, if you like this kind of thing, you may appreciate having these tales collected into one easily and quickly read volume. In the grand ol’ American way, there is far more violence here than sex so this is a pretty safe buy for kids who are passing through that love-the-macabre stage.

The biggest pleasure I got from the book was finding the source stories for some stuff that has been sold as fiction. For instance, there’s a tale here of a haunted windbreaker that was sold on eBay for $31.50, the obvious inspiration for Joe Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box. There are also several what-the-hell-is-going-on-here stories that appear to have been fed into Tobe Hooper’s movie Poltergeist. And the adventures of a man named John List, who murdered his entire family and then just moved on to wed and start another one, look like they may have had an influence on Donald E. Westlake’s screenplay for that terrific, underappreciated thriller The Stepfather.

My favorite, though, has to be the tale of poor, sad Philip Schuth, who lived a Geinishly lonely existence with his home-bound mother. When she died, he put her corpse in the freezer and kept it there for four-and-a-half years. She was discovered after Philip got in trouble with the neighbors for smacking a kid who was trespassing on his property. Schuth went to prison, where he acquired the nickname “Frosty.” He was immortalized when an entrepreneur began selling refrigerator magnets with the catch line “My Mom is Cooler Than Yours.”

The book is fun and Stall’s ironic narration lets you know that he doesn’t take all this stuff too seriously, nor does he buy every ghost story at face value. Reading the book is like sitting around the backyard grill when the sun is going down and Uncle Doug starts telling the kids why the old DeFeo house two streets over is said to be haunted. Everyone has a chuckle until Aunt Alice finds a fingernail in her burger.

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